WHEN EXTERNAL THREATS COME

 

Week of June 20, 2010

 

Bible Verses:  1 Samuel 7:2-17.

 

Lesson Focus:  This lesson provides principles that will put you in a proper relationship with God even in the midst of external threats.

 

Dedicate Yourself to God: 1 Samuel 7:2-6.

 

[2]  From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the LORD. [3]  And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, "If you are returning to the LORD with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines." [4]  So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the LORD only. [5]  Then Samuel said, "Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the LORD for you." [6]  So they gathered at Mizpah and drew water and poured it out before the LORD and fasted on that day and said there, "We have sinned against the LORD." And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah.  [ESV]

 

This section contrasts the ministry of Samuel with that of the house of Eli. Hophni and Phinehas had sought to bring victory to Israel by bringing the Lord’s ark against the Philistines. Samuel brought victory to Israel by bringing Israel back to the Lord. In chronicling the events of this section, the narrator is careful to indicate that mighty deliverance from the Philistines came about only after Israel repented and turned wholeheartedly back to God. The movement of Israel’s heart, not Yahweh’s ark, brought about true freedom from Israel’s oppressors. Twenty silent years separate 7:1 from 7:2. During that time the Israelites experienced a change of heart. Now the people of Israel were seeking after the Lord. Samuel noted the resurgence in religious commitment but is aware that sincerity is evidenced by action and not just by words of mourning. Like us, they had to understand that allegiance to the Lord Almighty, however sincere they may feel it was, was completely meaningless while they were also paying any kind of tribute to other gods. God would not deliver the Israelites from the Philistines while they served Philistine gods. It was vital that they recognized God’s total uniqueness and sovereignty; it was impossible for them to serve God unless they served Him only. Citizenship in God’s kingdom cannot ever be held by those who want to keep a passport that allows them to hold on to worldly values. Service of God is never to be seen as a supplement, a backup to other means of security, whether these are Canaanite idols, the god of money or conformity to any other of the values of the modern world. Our reluctance to speak out against ungodly values for fear of becoming unacceptable to our peers or losing our chance of promotion or wealth may lead to us becoming unacceptable to God Himself. For us, as much as for the people of Samuel’s day, that is not a risk worth taking. Jesus makes just this point when He says: You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve [Matt. 4:10] to resist Satan’s temptation to become ruler of this world. Once Israel had signified the reality of their commitment to the Lord by getting rid of all their Baals and Ashtoreths, then it was possible for Samuel to lead them in a ceremony of repentance and reaffirmation of their allegiance to God. Their original mourning was probably as much related to their failure to remove the Philistine threat as it was to any awareness of their own sin, but now Samuel accepts the confession that they have sinned against the Lord as genuine. They pour out water and fast indicating that God is more important to them then even the necessities of life. They had finally realized that it was their own unconfessed sin that was the real problem, and had finally accepted responsibility for their own attitudes and actions. We do well to learn from them the damage that unrecognized and unconfessed sin can do and the benefits of actually beginning to behave as God’s people.

 

Overcome Your Fears:  1 Samuel 7:7-11.

 

[7]  Now when the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the people of Israel heard of it, they were afraid of the Philistines. [8]  And the people of Israel said to Samuel, "Do not cease to cry out to the LORD our God for us, that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines." [9]  So Samuel took a nursing lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the LORD. And Samuel cried out to the LORD for Israel, and the LORD answered him. [10]  As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel. But the LORD thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were routed before Israel. [11]  And the men of Israel went out from Mizpah and pursued the Philistines and struck them, as far as below Beth-car.  [ESV]

 

When Israel had assembled at Mizpah for national recommitment to the Lord, word reached the Philistines. In all likelihood the Philistines had forbidden the Israelites to hold public assemblies since such meetings could easily be used to mobilize the tribes for war. Thus the rulers of the Philistines dispatched a large military force to Mizpah to attack the Israelites. Fear gripped the Israelites when they learned that an attack by their adversaries was imminent. In language reflecting descriptions of Israel’s previous revivals during the days of the Judges, the Israelites urged Samuel to continue crying out to the Lord so that He would rescue them. The people’s appeal to Samuel to intercede before the Lord on their behalf probably was motivated by their knowledge that he was a prophet in addition to being a judge. Previously in Israelite history only Moses the prophet-judge was asked by the Israelites during a time of national emergency. Samuel’s appeal to the Lord included a blood sacrifice of a nursing lamb as a whole burnt offering to the Lord and a whole-hearted prayer to the Lord on Israel’s behalf. In response to Samuel’s prayer, the Lord answered him with loud thunder against the Philistines. In so doing Yahweh was acting in accordance with Hannah’s prophetic prayer [2:10]. Because the peoples of the ancient Near East believed that every military combat involved a conflict being played out on two planes, the human and the divine, any unusual meteorological phenomenon during a military operation would naturally be interpreted as evidence of a deity at work. The loud, unexpected thunder was immediately understood by the Philistines as a bad omen, and it threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites. Emboldened by their enemies’ flight, the newly rededicated soldiers of the Lord rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, slaughtering them along the way to Beth-car, a village of unknown location probably west of Mizpah. In this instance, God dealt not only with the Philistines’ presumption in trying to take advantage of the Israelites’ preoccupation with worship but also with the Israelites’ fears. The Israelite army completed the destruction of the routed Philistines, but it was God alone who brought about their defeat. The power of the God of Israel was once more demonstrated to Israel and Philistia alike. Chapters 4 and 7 are meant to contrast with each other. In chapter 4 Israel thinks that she can coerce Yahweh’s power by having His ark in their presence, while in chapter 7 Israel sees her helplessness and can only resort to desperate prayer. Thus in chapter 7 Israel is not dabbling in religious magic but walking by sheer faith. They dangle by the mere mercy of Yahweh. They see no recourse, but, taking their cue from Samuel, they share his position: Let Yahweh save us from the hand of the Philistines [8]. Their only weapon is prayer, their only hope that Samuel might place his hand upon the throne of the Lord for them. And even Samuel is reduced to a cry of distress on their behalf [9]. Desperation, however, is never in trouble when it rests on omnipotence.

 

Commemorate God’s Help:  1 Samuel 7:12-17.

 

[12]  Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, "Till now the LORD has helped us." [13]  So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel. And the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. [14]  The cities that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath, and Israel delivered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. There was peace also between Israel and the Amorites. [15]  Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life. [16]  And he went on a circuit year by year to Bethel, Gilgal, and Mizpah. And he judged Israel in all these places. [17]  Then he would return to Ramah, for his home was there, and there also he judged Israel. And he built there an altar to the LORD.  [ESV]

 

[12]  The victory was a significant one for Israel, and Samuel helped to memorialize it by erecting a stone monument, apparently at the point where the Philistines had been driven back.

The great stone, set up as a memorial and named Ebenezer, or ‘stone of help’, would commemorate the victory and maybe also help to ease the painful memories of their earlier ignominious defeat. In the battle where the ark was taken, the Israelite army had camped at Ebenezer [4:1] and this might have been in Samuel’s mind as he named the memorial stone. In spite of their foolishness and wrong attitude towards the ark, God had continued to help them. The stone provided a reminder that God’s help was a much more reliable support for Israel than any human effort or ingenuity. The writer almost certainly notes the irony that the description of Israel being saved from defeat by God alone is almost immediately followed by their request for a king to be their helper. Finding the right balance between exercising their responsibility to use the minds and strength that God had given them and trusting in God alone to guide and help was an ongoing dilemma for Israel, as it is for God’s people today.

 

[13-17]  Verse 13 summarizes Samuel’s career as leader/judge, characterizing it as one that effectively brought the Lord’s judgments to bear against the Philistines. Furthermore, under Samuel’s administration portions of the Promised Land from Ekron to Gath were brought back under Israelite control, an area whose control was contested by the Philistines earlier in the history of Israel. Israel’s success against the Philistines during the days of Samuel’s leadership was a demonstration of their conformity to the Torah, even as their losses to the Philistines under Eli and Saul were the result of breaches of divine law. One of the dividends resulting from Israel’s successes against the Philistines was peace also between Israel and the Amorites. Having defeated the dominant regional power, Israel had for now become the force to be reckoned with. Rather than challenging the Israelites militarily, Canaanite remnants in the area apparently found it preferable to pursue peace. Samuel continued faithfully in his role as judge over Israel all the days of his life, apparently even after Saul had become king. Samuel, who is described by the narrator as one who acted as judge more times than anyone else in the Bible, is portrayed as the ideal leader who faithfully dispensed justice among the Lord’s people. His career was an itinerant one, as he annually traveled to four cities in the tribal areas of Benjamin, Ephraim and Manasseh to dispense justice. These cities were Ramah, his home now that his ties with Shiloh were broken; Bethel; Gilgal, a city in the vicinity of Jericho; and Mizpah. Both Mizpah and Bethel were cities that had functioned as gathering places for the entire nation during the period of the Judges. Gilgal had been a national religious shrine since the days of Joshua and perhaps an early administrative center as well. Samuel enhanced the religious significance of his hometown Ramah by building an altar to the Lord. These last verses of chapter 7 mark the passage of time and set the scene for the next stage in Israel’s history.

 

 

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         Verses 2-6 teach the important lesson that religious activities are not pleasing to God unless they come from a heart that is devoted to Him. And one of the key characteristics of a heart devoted to God is repentance where one confesses that sin, seeks forgiveness and turns away from that sin so that it no longer interferes with one’s relationship with God. Samuel instructed the people of his day to put away all of the foreign gods that they worshipped in order to turn their hearts fully to Yahweh, their faithful covenant-keeping God. Spend time this week examining your heart. Ask God through His Holy Spirit to convict you of any unrecognized and unconfessed sin is your life. Think about areas in your Christian walk where you are seeking to gain God’s favor or blessing through religious activities rather than seeking first to make your heart right with God and then allowing these activities to flow out of a heart that seeks only to please and honor Him. Also think about any of the “idols” of our day that you are allowing to interfere with your focus on your relationship with God. Seek God’s help in enabling you to put away these worldly “idols.”

 

2.         One indication that the Israelites had learned the lesson Samuel was teaching them is when overcome by fear they did not seek to gain God’s favor through some religious activity but rather plead with Samuel to pray unceasingly to God on their behalf. How do you handle fear in your life? Do you seek to bargain with God by promising to do certain things for Him if He will only deal with the situation causing you to be fearful? This is essentially what the Israelites did in chapter 4 by bringing the ark to the battle. Or do you turn to Him in prayer, earnestly seeking His solution to your problem acknowledging that only in His strength will you be able to overcome your fears; then peacefully waiting expectantly for His thunder to come?

 

3.         In the hymn, Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing, there is the phrase “Here I raise my Ebenezer.” Have you ever “raised your Ebenezer” in order to remind you of God’s particular faithfulness at a difficult time in your life? Stone monuments to remind the Israelites of God’s power and faithfulness were common in the Old Testament [see for example Joshua 4:9]. We do not need to use stone monuments, but we can use other things (journal, picture, plaque, etc.) to remind us and our families of God’s faithfulness. What are some things you have used in order to remind you of God’s particular faithfulness in your life?

 

References:

1, 2 Samuel, Robert Bergen, NAC, Broadman.

The Message of Samuel, Mary Evans, Intervarsity Press.

1 Samuel, Dale Ralph Davis, Christian Focus.